The last time that NC State suited up in the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill with a chance to finish off a regular-season sweep of its archrival North Carolina was 2003.
The Pack was looking to extend a three-game winning streak against UNC during what NC State fans gleefully remember as the Matt Doherty years in Chapel Hill.
The year before when the two teams matched up at the Dean Dome, NC State routed UNC 77-59 to end a six-game skid against the Heels. The most memorable aspect of the 2002 triumph in Chapel Hill was Wolfpack fans taking over the Heels' home court, chanting "Wolf-Pack" in the latter stages of the blowout loud enough that it was audible even for those watching at home.
"I have never seen that much red in this building," former NC State guard Archie Miller said afterwards. "They [NC State fans] were full-fledged. They were everywhere. They were hiding in the rafters. They were coming out of the tunnels. There were people trying to grab your hands. They were really into the game."
The Pack completed the sweep of UNC with an easy 98-76 home win weeks later, and then topped Carolina 86-77 in the first showdown of 2003, setting up another potential sweep of the Heels.
It would not be easy. UNC used an 11-0 run to take a 56-50 lead with five minutes to go against State. Guard Scooter Sherrill and wing Julius Hodge both made clutch shots, however, with Hodge tying the contest with 8.3 seconds left to force overtime. NC State then dominated the extra session to pull out a 75-67 triumph.
Since then, NC State has gone winless in the Dean Dome. Pack fans also endured a miserable 13-game losing streak to the Heels dating back to 2007 before NCSU finally put an end to it Jan. 26.
The rematch, and a potential first regular-season sweep of UNC in 10 years, is Saturday. Even while basking in the aftermath of an impressive 18-point home win over Florida State Tuesday evening, junior forward C.J. Leslie was cognitive of the next opponent on the schedule.
"I am aware of who is up next," Leslie said. "We have to have a good game, because we know they are going to bring it."
The previous time the two teams matched up this season, NC State ran around and through UNC in transition to bolt out to a 61-33 lead 27 minutes into the game before cruising home 91-83.
The two teams, however, are much different a little less than a month later. Most noticeably, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams altered his lineup to go smaller and quicker. He is starting sophomore wing P.J. Hairston in place of sophomore center Desmond Hubert, moving sophomore power forward James Michael McAdoo over to play in the middle and surrounding him with four perimeter players.
Williams made the switch to the smaller lineup for the Tar Heels' showdown at Duke Feb. 13, and UNC responded by leading for the first 26 minutes of the game despite being double-digit underdogs. Duke rallied for a 73-68 win, but the new lineup gave the Heels a spark.
Carolina won its next two games, including a crucial 93-81 home win over Virginia Feb. 16.
Meanwhile, NC State slumped with a three-game losing streak after its UNC win.
"It knocked the wind out of our sails," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried conceded.
The return of junior point guard Lorenzo Brown from an injured ankle and senior wing Scott Wood's buzzer-beating three-pointer gave NCSU a much-needed 58-57 win at Clemson Feb. 10.
The Pack then needed overtime to defeat Virginia Tech 90-86 Feb. 16. That's when Gottfried made a lineup move of his own, starting freshman forward T.J. Warren over freshman shooting guard Rodney Purvis. Warren responded with a 31-point, 13-rebound effort in the 84-66 win over Florida State.
"Rodney hasn't played as well lately," Gottfried stated. "We need Rodney to be at his best, and Tyler [Lewis] to be at his best and T.J. to be at his best. I felt like our team needed something different.
"I thought T.J. was excellent. He obviously responded in a very positive way. I am proud of him."
That sets up an intriguing showdown today of two teams seemingly trending in the right direction with different lineups. Carolina has gone perimeter oriented, spacing out its offense with four players who would prefer to play behind the three-point line. NCSU has a tall lineup, with the smallest player on the court in the starting lineup being Brown at 6-5.
The two teams are also playing for positioning in the upcoming ACC Tournament that starts March 14 in Greensboro, N.C. Miami is running away with the league's top seed, Duke is second, and then UNC, NC State and Virginia are all tied for third place. There is a two-game cushion between those three and the sixth place duo of Maryland and Florida State.
That means that the four teams that will get valued first round byes in the ACC Tournament will almost certainly include Miami and then three of Duke, NC State, North Carolina and Virginia. The winner Saturday will be in much better position to get one of those byes than they were before tipoff.
And for Gottfried, a win will continue to build upon NC State's recent successes.
"You always want your team to be playing its best basketball in February and March," Gottfried said. "Hopefully we can continue to get better and play well."
If State plays well enough, they can also start to bring back fond memories of those games in 2002 and 2003.
North Carolina preview
NC State (19-8, 8-5 ACC) at North Carolina (18-8, 8-5 ACC)
Game time: Saturday, Feb. 23, 4 p.m. — Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
PG — 2 Lorenzo Brown (6-5, 186, Jr., 12.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.8 apg, 2.0 spg)
SG — 15 Scott Wood (6-6, 169, Sr., 11.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.2 apg)
SF — 24 T.J. Warren (6-8, 224, Fr., 12.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.0 spg)
PF — 5 C.J. Leslie (6-9, 200, Jr., 15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 bpg)
C — 1 Richard Howell (6-8, 257, Sr., 13.0 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.1 spg)
PG — 5 Marcus Paige (6-0, 157, Fr., 7.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.2 spg)
SG — 1 Dexter Strickland (6-3, 185, Sr., 7.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.3 spg)
SG — 15 P.J. Hairston (6-5, 220, Soph., 13.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.0 spg)
SF — 35 Reggie Bullock (6-7, 205, Jr., 13.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 spg)
PF — 43 James Michael McAdoo (6-9, 230, Soph., 14.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.5 spg)
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Nickname: Tar Heels
2011-12 record: 32-6 overall, 14-2 ACC
2012 postseason: Lost 80-67 to Kansas in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament
Coach: Roy Williams, 10th season at UNC (275-76) and 25th season overall (693-177)
Series: UNC leads 147-76
Last meeting: NC State won 91-83 on Jan. 26, 2013, in Raleigh
North Carolina: North Carolina has gone 5-2 since losing to NC State, but the Tar Heels have made some key changes. UNC got blown out 87-61 at Miami Feb. 9, and elected to go with a smaller lineup the next game at Duke. The move paid off and the Tar Heels played Duke competitively before falling 73-68 Feb. 13 … The key changes included benching sophomore center Desmond Hubert and moving sophomore power forward James Michael McAdoo to the middle. The move allowed for junior Reggie Bullock, sophomore P.J. Hairston and redshirt junior Leslie McDonald to play more together … The 6-5, 220-pound Hairston had 23 points and eight rebounds against Duke, and followed with 29 points, seven rebounds and six three-pointers in a 93-81 win over Virginia Feb. 16. Hairston had 19 points and went 5 of 8 from beyond the arc against the Wolfpack this season. The Greensboro, N.C., native has topped 20 points in four games, and is averaging 13.2 points and is shooting 37.2 percent from three-point range … McAdoo has hit the wall a little bit in making the move to center. He has scored in single figures in four games, but three of them have come in the Tar Heels' last five contests. The 6-9, 230-pound McAdoo had nine points and eight rebounds at Duke, and nine points and 10 boards against Virginia. He bounced back to post 22 points and 11 rebounds - his ninth double-double this season — in a 70-58 win at Georgia Tech on Tuesday. McAdoo ran into foul trouble in the first meeting against NC State, and had 13 points and 11 boards before fouling out. … Bullock remains North Carolina's most consistent perimeter player this season, and is averaging 13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while shooting an impressive 44.4 percent on three-pointers. The Kinston, N.C., native has cracked at least 22 points in three games, with a season-high 24 points in a 62-52 home win against Maryland Jan. 19, and 23 in an 87-62 win versus Wake Forest Feb. 5. The 6-7, 205-pound Bullock had a modest performance against NC State, tallying 10 points, five assists and four rebounds in the loss … Senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland is averaging 7.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, and is coming off playing some of his best ball this season. He tied his ACC high with 14 points at Duke, and had 12 points and six assists against UVa. The 6-3, 185-pounder has averaged at least 7.5 points per game the last three years. Strickland had six points and six assists against NCSU at PNC Arena … Freshman point guard Marcus Paige, who is 6-0 and 157 pounds, is averaging 7.4 points and 4.3 assists per game. Paige has had more downs than ups this season in starting at point guard, but erupted for 17 points, three assists and went 3 of 5 from three-point land against Virginia. He also had a season-high 19 points, five assists and five rebounds in a 72-60 win over Virginia Tech Feb. 2. Paige is shooting 31.5 percent from the field and 29.8 from three-point land. NC State junior point guard Lorenzo Brown dominated Paige while compiling 20 points and 11 assists for the Wolfpack in the teams first matchup earlier this year. Paige shot 2 of 11 from the field en route to seven points and four assists against NCSU … McDonald has played between 15-25 minutes in ACC action. He missed the previous NC State game while serving a three-game suspension. The 6-5, 215-pound wing is averaging 8.2 points per game and shooting 40.5 percent from three-point land after a 15-point effort and 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range in the win at Georgia Tech.